Mica arrived at 0455. “Morning, Mom.” He kissed her on the cheek.
Coralie said, “Good morning, my dear. Breakfast is just on the table now.” She took his coat and hung it on an empty hook for him.
“And while we eat,” said Everard, “perhaps you can enlighten us as to why Linnie spent most of the night, awake and crying.”
Because she had been watching, Coralie was able to catch the initial glowering anger on Mica’s face before he caught himself and smoothed out his expression into an imitation of his father’s impassive face. “Did she,” he said, not as a question but as a confirmation. “I should have expected that.” He sat down opposite Everard. “Last night, she went to the Taivas suite to ask Sanna Taivas if Rusza’s actions of late had hurt her.”
Everard set down his cup. He was thinking, inferring, and Coralie could tell that he didn’t like the inferences he was reaching.
“It was worrying her, she said. What she heard only confirmed her worries. She didn’t let go of Sanna’s arm all the drive back.” Mica took a cup and poured himself some chicory. “I have never seen her so wrathful. Never.”
Coralie sat down next to her husband. When she touched his forearm, she found the tension in it alarming. “What did Sanna say?”
“Several things, all equaling nothing at all. It was a perfect non-answer.”
“Denial,” said Everard. “Denying the circumstances themselves?”
“No, only that those circumstances involve her. She thinks she knows better— should know better than to… to let herself grow attached to someone like him.” Mica sipped his chicory slowly, hiding his mouth with the cup in that way he had when he didn’t want to show his expression.
Everard actually growled deep in his throat.
“Dear,” Coralie said.
“I am under control,” he replied.
After a few minutes of silence, Crystallin came out to join them at the table. Coralie held out her hands so that her daughter would come to her first. “Did you sleep at all, Linnie?”
“A little,” the girl said. “I wrote an epic letter to Lyndon, and that helped me feel better.” She squeezed Coralie’s hands and released them. “I’m pretty hungry, though. Morning, Daddy.” She slid into the chair next to Mica.
Mica ruffled her hair with one hand. “Morning, Linnie.”
“It’s weird now, having a quiet breakfast together like this,” said Crystallin. “Don’t you have to do morning training?”
“Today is an off-day,” Everard said. “The students have the day to rest and take care of any personal business. We will sit together at the evening reading, but that’s all.”
They sank into a mutual silence that would have been peaceful, if Coralie hadn’t known so well the warning signs in all three of the others. Everard was irritable, almost angry. Mica was moody and pensive. Crystallin was weary, but her anger hadn’t yet died away.
And none of these was improved when, in response to a brisk knock, Coralie opened the door to reveal Rusza standing outside the suite. “Morning, Aunt Coralie. Morning, Uncle Everard. Morning, Mica. Morning, Linnie.”
Crystallin picked up her plate without a word and withdrew to her room.
Rusza gazed after her with a twist to his lips, but he pretended to ignore the incident. “I just wondered if you had any work you needed help with, Uncle Everard.”
“No. Cooper helped us complete it last evening, while you were out playing.” Everard chewed his toast slowly, deliberately.
Rusza said, “Sorry about that, Uncle. Ma Demyan and Irina came to town yesterday to do shopping today, and they asked me for help.”
“For help doing what? If they are shopping today, it doesn’t make sense that they needed you yesterday, all afternoon and into the evening.” Everard took another bite of toast.
“Just… running errands,” Rusza said. His voice had turned slightly defensive.
Everard replied, “I see.” He didn’t even glance at Rusza.
“I said I was sorry.”
“Did you?” Everard took another bite and chewed.
Coralie could see that this conversation would never improve on its own. “Rusza,” she said, “Everard and I are concerned about you. Ever since you met this girl, your attitude and behavior has been… less than exemplary. We’re worried that this girl might be–“
“Why do you all keep calling her ‘this girl’?” Rusza burst out. “Her name is Irina, Irina Demyan.”
“Do not interrupt your elders,” Everard snapped. “What Cora is trying to say gently is that this girl, this Irina Demyan, is having a bad influence on you.”
“That isn’t true!” Rusza exclaimed.
“Do you call me a liar?” Everard’s voice had dropped dangerously low.
“No, that isn’t what I meant,” said Rusza, “but why is everyone so against her? She’s… I feel like I’ve known her my whole life. We’re a perfect fit for each other!”
“Like two peas in a pod,” Mica muttered. “She’s the female version of you.”
“Not exactly,” Everard remarked. “She is the female version of what he would have been, if Archet had raised him without the intervention of Gar and Apple: pampered, undisciplined, wholly self-absorbed. I expect better of you, Rusza, for your grandparents’ sake.”
An angry flush suffused Rusza’s face. “With all due respect, Uncle, you don’t even know her.”
Everard turned for the first time and stared straight at Rusza. After an awkwardly long silence, he said, “First, the phrase ‘with all due respect’ is not a free pass to show disrespect. Second, using that phrase in that way is an insult. It tells me that you believe no respect is actually due me. And third, I know what I have observed in her, and what I have observed in you since you took up with her. That tells me all I need to know about that girl. Starting tomorrow, I am putting you on patrol with Daystar Company, to prevent you from doing any more damage here.”
“Fine by me,” Rusza snapped, “Irina has two brothers training with Daystar that I haven’t gotten to meet yet.”
“Then I wish you well with the new family you’ve chosen. Tate, you’re dismissed.”
Coralie saw the shock that replaced the anger in Rusza’s mercurial expressions, followed rapidly by bewildered pain, but the boy pivoted and walked out without another word.
“He has his father’s blind stubbornness when he knows he’s in the wrong,” Everard remarked. Then he raised his voice a degree. “Linnie, come back to the table. He has gone.” As if he hadn’t interrupted himself, he went on, “It is past time we let him experience the consequences of his choices. I refuse to protect him any longer.”
“I’m sorry I left the room so suddenly,” Crystallin said as she returned to the table, “but I won’t speak with him while he’s like this. I wouldn’t have any blessing for him, that’s for sure… except maybe one I saw in one of Fiola’s dad’s letters, which I’m sure I’m not allowed to repeat.”
“I need to read those letters one day soon,” Everard commented.
“Dear,” Coralie said, “what do you mean by not protecting him?”
“Precisely that. If he wants to sacrifice every other relationship he has for her sake, then I’ll let him. If he wants to bring shame on himself by the way he acts, he may do so. I will consider him on a par with any other trainee. He takes his own chances.”
“What about his sympathy?”
“I will, of course, give the commander a warning to keep watch over that, as I would for any high-risk trainee.” He drained his cup. “Speaking of high-risk, I need to remind Wyeth to check on Sanna today. Emotional instability can destabilize sympathies as much as physical instability can.”
“I’ll go,” Mica volunteered. “I’m not hungry. And I need to write to Slate.”
“Why Slate?” Coralie asked.
“Because I understand now what he meant. When I was sent to get my equipment, after I was put back into obligatory service, he was furious at me. He said he wanted me out of his workplace as soon as possible, that eating in the same room as me would make the food taste bad. I didn’t understand how that could be physiologically possible… until today. So I want to apologize to Slate for causing him to experience that.” He gathered up his plate and cup, carried them to the sink, and went for his coat and shoes.
“Let Dr. Rao know that I’ll stay here all day, if she deems it necessary to update me on Sanna’s condition,” Everard said.
After Mica left, Coralie settled back in her chair.
“Don’t try to coddle him, Cora.”
She looked up quickly. “I won’t interfere in your discipline.”
“No, but you’re still trying to think of a way to bring him back,” her husband pointed out. “It won’t do. The only thing that can bring him back is the same thing that took him away: his choice.”
Coralie thought about that for most of the day. When time came to get ready for the evening reading, she chose her dress uniform. This caused Everard to say, “I agree: we’re none of us in a fit state to socialize this evening.” Coralie smiled halfheartedly at this.
She had looked forward to the evening reading as a way to steady her restlessness and redirect her thoughts, but it didn’t turn out that way. Everard selected four seats in a row situated in the middle of the public meeting hall. Crystallin and Mica entered the row ahead of their parents, and Everard let Coralie take the aisle seat. Jock and Ietta came shortly after them and sat behind them, with Ietta on the aisle. Coralie’s staff, Gretta Warhite in their midst, came along the side aisle and filled the rest of that row. Then the Taivas contingent, with a stranger in their midst, came to occupy the rest of Coralie’s row. She saw Crystallin insist on Sanna sitting beside her, and Fiola claimed Sanna’s other side, with Soren on the oldest girl’s lap. Wyeth came at the end of the line, supporting Friga Rohkin by the elbow. Then Everard leaned forward, looking down the row. This was enough of a signal for the doctor, who gave him a somewhat whimsical nod in response.
A few minutes after Sanna’s group settled in, Sora Waeber filed into the row ahead of Coralie, with Anion Cooper and Rusza behind him. This left Rusza on the aisle, directly in front of Coralie. He glanced backward over his right shoulder, not looking at Coralie but farther back down the aisle. His eyes brightened, and he gave a little wave.
A very pretty brunette girl ran up the aisle and grabbed Rusza by the hand. “Come and sit with us!” When he hesitated, she pouted prettily, with her lips pursed. “You don’t want to sit by me?” She pulled on his hand again, and this time Rusza came to his feet and let her lead him to the second row from the front, where the parents of several young men were directing their sons into seats. The brunette could be clearly heard to say, “But I wanted to sit on the aisle, Pa!” when her father tried to usher her in after her last brother. This time, instead of a pout, she snuggled against her father’s arm. “Please, Pa?”
He gave in, ushered his wife in after the boys, entered the row himself, and let the girl sit beside him, leaving her between her father and Rusza.
“And that,” said Everard under his breath, “is what I have been confronting the past few days.”
Unfortunately, their seats gave a clear view of the young couple. When the reader stood and called the hall to order, Irina Demyan and Rusza had their heads close together, whispering. When the reader called the audience to stand out of respect for the reading, Rusza made an abortive attempt to stand and Irina pulled at his arm, distracting him so that she could whisper something directly into his ear. This whisper lasted all the way through the first reading, by which point everyone sat down. Rusza was shaking with laughter at whatever Irina had confided in him, and she was hiding a giggle behind her hand— but her hand didn’t stop the sound of her laughter from traveling as far as Coralie.
“Everard,” Coralie whispered to her husband, “we should do something. People are taking notice of that.”
He slid his arm around her shoulders and leaned close to her ear. “I told you earlier, he reaps the consequences of the actions he sows. If he wants to shame himself in front of the congregated worthies of Sawtooth Ridge, so be it. It is not our responsibility; it is his.”
The second reading was a call and response, with the reader giving the first part of each saying and the audience giving the second part in unison. Not halfway through the reading, Coralie heard the telltale giggle again. Her attention was drawn to the young couple, mortified on their behalf because they so clearly had no thought that others could see and hear them. Rusza leaned over to whisper to Irina Demyan. She shook her head and tapped her ear, as if to say he had to lean closer to speak. When he did lean close, however, he dropped a quick kiss on her earlobe, making her gasp audibly. This alerted her father at her other side, and he muttered something indistinct that forced her to turn to placate him. Rusza, meanwhile, had sat bolt upright in feigned innocence, mouthing along with the audience response. He held this position until Irina had placated her father. Then she leaned over to cling to Rusza’s arm, and he leaned his head to one side to rest it on hers.
Coralie had difficulty focusing on the rest of the readings. She felt keenly the murmurs of the audience, as much as if one of her own children had behaved inappropriately during a public time of devotion. She was astonished that Everard could follow along with the readings so imperturbably, but then she remembered that he had made up his mind on the matter. He would do as he had told her, come what may.
The moment the last reading was finished and the reader dismissed the audience, Irina Demyan sprang up and pulled Rusza by the hand in a loping run down the long aisle to the door, saying, “Let’s be the first ones there!” They raced past Coralie, who noticed that Rusza was looking at no one but Irina.
Everard offered Coralie his arm and walked sedately along the same path. “Let’s go back and listen to the evening concert on the radio.”
She agreed, but her attention was less on his words than on her worries. She didn’t even notice that Mica and Crystallin weren’t behind them until she heard the two striding briskly along the sidewalk behind them. Crystallin passed them, striding with wide swings of her arms, while Mica slowed to walk at Coralie’s other side.
“Dare I ask what triggered it this time?” Everard said mildly.
“Sanna told Fiola to take Soren and go back to the suite without her,” Mica said, “because she wanted to stay alone and make use of the prayer room.”
“Why would that make her angry?” Coralie asked.
“If you had heard the tone of the request, you wouldn’t need to ask,” Mica replied.
Everard exhaled, and the night air was so chilly that his breath was visible. “So the time for denial has passed. She will need time alone with her thoughts, time to pray. If that exhibition of theirs served any purpose, perhaps it is this.”
“You sound as if you want her to be brokenhearted,” Coralie said reproachfully.
“If that’s what it takes,” he replied. “If she needs to grieve, so be it, as long as it helps her move forward. She has too much talent and potential, to be handicapped by ill-advised affection for a fool.”
“Dear,” said Coralie, “you make it sound so simple, but it rarely is.”
They arrived to find that Crystallin had already turned on the radio and warmed up the kettle. “Chamomile and lemon for Mom,” she said as she poured out a cup for Coralie. “What would you like, Daddy?”
“I would like a world where good sense and self-control were the rule, not the exception,” her father said, “but I will settle for a cup of chamomile, no lemon.” When the tea had steeped, he added a lump of sugar and stirred it gently.
They settled together around the radio with their hot drinks. The concert that evening was a children’s choir from Current-town. Coralie leaned back against Everard’s strong arm and let herself soak in the bright, clear voices as they sang a selection of folk songs and Southern hymns. So relaxed was she that, when someone tapped on their door, she was startled upright as if coming awake out of a doze.
Mica went to answer the door. “What’s wrong?” he demanded.
Little Fiola stood out in the hallway, crying. When Crystallin pulled her inside the suite, the girl tried to speak but couldn’t.
Everard joined them. He rubbed Fiola’s upper arms. “You shouldn’t be out without a coat. Come farther in.” He took a decorative afghan from the back of the couch and draped it around the girl’s shivering shoulders. “What is wrong with Sanna? Is it her sympathy?”
Fiola shook her head. “She didn’t… didn’t come for a long time, so I went to l-look for her. I heard her in the dark, crying for her mom, for Aunt Kaisa. What do I do?” The girl melted into tears again.
Everard looked at Coralie.
She nodded. Rising, she yielded her place on the couch to Fiola, took the girl’s face between her hands, and kissed her forehead. “I’ll look after her.” Then she grabbed her coat from the hook, slipped into her boots, and hurried toward the public meeting house.
Nearly all the lights were off, leaving only a few to highlight the backs of the seats. The central heat had been turned down for the night, so the vast main hall was chilly. Coralie walked the main aisle slowly, listening, and discovered that Sanna hadn’t moved from the seat she had occupied during the evening readings. She was bent forward, hugging her knees, and her shuddering breaths were only just audible at close range. As Coralie halted in the aisle, gazing at the girl, she heard Sanna whisper, “Why… why couldn’t I go with you? Why am I still here? It hurts so much…” Coralie walked sideways down the row of chairs and sat next to Sanna. She was certain that Sanna, in her deep misery, had not noticed her arrival, because the girl sniffled and said, “Why didn’t I die?”
Coralie reached across Sanna’s bent back as best she could in a hug. “My dear Sanna.” She felt the girl stiffen, but she went on, “I know I can’t take your mother’s place. No one can. But I am a mom, and it breaks my heart to see you so unhappy. Can’t you tell me about it?” She held Sanna until the girl sat upright, wiping her hands over her face, wiping away a thin glaze of ice. At first, Coralie was anxious that Sanna would pull away and close her off from the grief. Then, like a wall collapsing, the girl turned and threw her arms around Coralie, sobbing incoherently into her shoulder like a child. Coralie whispered, “That’s right. Let it out, let me take some of it for you. It will be all right eventually. I know it’s hard. I know you wish you could give up. But it’ll all be all right eventually. Hold on and wait for it. That’s a good girl.”